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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)

The Netherlands Bach Society
Dir: Jos van Veldhoven

rec: April 2010, [n.p.]
Channel Classics - CCS SA 32511 (3 CDs) (© 2011) (2.45'30")

[Coro I] concertists: Amaryllis Dieltiens, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Julian Podger (arias), Gerd Türk (Evangelist), tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; ripienists: Dorothea Jakob (Ancilla I), Marjon Strijk (Ancilla II, Uxor Pilati), soprano; Barnabás Hegyi, ; Elena Pozhidaeva, contralto; Alastair Carey, Scott Wellstead, tenor; Matthew Baker (Petrusç Pilatus, Pontifex I), Philippe Favette (Judas, Pontifex II), bass
[Coro II] concertists Siri Karoline Thornhill, soprano; Matthew White, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Sebastian Noack, bass

There are few countries - if any - which have such a long tradition of performing Bach's St Matthew Passion during Passiontide every year. Many choirs and vocal ensembles perform this work in many places. The 'Passion tradition' is embodied in particular by the Netherlands Bach Society which is the oldest ensemble for early music in the Netherlands and which started to perform the St Matthew Passion in 1922. Several times a recording was made, and in 1997 a live recording - the ensemble's first on period instruments - was released by Channel Classics, also conducted by Jos van Veldhoven. Apparently he thought the time was ripe for a new version. This can be justified by the fact that his own views on the performance practice of Bach's vocal works has changed.

Since some years he has joined the growing army of scholars and interpreters who believe Bach used to perform his vocal works with one voice per part. The first result of this was the recording of the St John Passion, which was followed some years later by the Mass in b minor. Those recordings also showed, though, that he takes some liberties in the application of this theory. That particularly regards the number of ripienists he uses. That is also the case here: in the first choir there are not one but two ripienists per part, whereas in the second choir there are no ripienists at all. There is a special reason for that which Jos van Veldhoven explains in his notes on the performance practice in the booklet. The title says: "A single-choir passion?" He is inspired by the ideas of the American Bach scholar Daniel Melamed, in his book Hearing Bach's Passions (2005).

The basic idea is that Bach has split the ensemble into two sections, but that these are not equals. The biblical narrative is told in Coro I, whereas Coro II only delivers commentary. Almost all important arias are in Coro I, and there are twice as many arias in Coro I as in Coro II. The instrumental writing for both choirs is also different: there are many more solos in Coro I than in Coro II, and in the latter the instruments often play colla voce. This has led to the assumption that the singers of Coro II mostly act as ripienists whereas Coro I consists of concertists. "Rather than a symmetrical double-choir composition, the result is a complex, a-symmetrical single-choir Passion". Van Veldhoven sees the reasoning for the splitting into two choirs in the libretto of Picander, who employs two groups of people, the 'daughters of Zion' and 'the faithful'. "Bach translated this into two musical ensembles which enter into dialogue and react to one another, without being each other's equal. Genuine double-choir writing is found only in dramatic points such as 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner'". He then refers to moments where Coro II reacts with "rhetorical questions or poetic commentary". He mentions the interruptions in the opening chorus ("Wen?", "Wie?', "Was?" and "Wohin?") and the text of Coro II in the duet 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen': "Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht". "When the two do sing and play together, Coro II mainly doubles Coro I, as in the final movement of the first part, 'O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß'. At that moment, the singers and players of Coro II form a genuine ripieno." There are only very few passages of real double-choir writing.

This seems mainly a matter of theory. Whatever the role of Coro II may be, it has no immediate repercussions on the way the St Matthew Passion is performed. But Jos van Veldhoven has decided to translate this interpretation into the performance practice. He wanted to make the a-symmetry between Coro I and Coro II audible. He therefore added eight riepienists to the solo singers of Coro I. Except in some minor roles they only sing in the choruses and chorales. Coro II consists only of four soloists who sing all the parts: arias, choruses and chorales. Van Veldhoven believes the fact that the instruments of Coro II frequently play colla voce could be an indication for the use of fewer singers than in Coro I in Bach's own performances.

I find this view very interesting, and it can't be appreciated enough that performing musicians take the results of musicological results into account. But they are not always successful in their attempts to translate them into the performance practice. Often these become rather demonstrative, at the cost of a musically convincing performance.
I can't see any reason why this theory about the relationship between Coro I and Coro II should lead to a different scoring of the two choirs. If I understand Van Veldhoven correctly - I haven't read Daniel Melamed's book - the only historical argument to justify the reduction of the vocal forces of Coro II to four singers is the fact that the instruments mostly play colla voce. But couldn't there be another reason, like the singers of Coro II - or at least some of them - being less skilled than those of Coro I? Couldn't that also explain the fact that there are fewer arias in Coro II than in Coro I? And at least Van Veldhoven doesn't give any historical evidence for the use of more than four ripienists in Coro I. In practice the difference in size between the two choirs has a negative effect in that the weight of the interruptions of Coro II is clearly reduced. The opening chorus bears witness to that. Was this really Bach's intention?

This, of course, is just one aspect of this recording. There are a number of issues which can make or break a performance of the St Matthew Passion.

The role of the Evangelist is crucial. Gerd Türk has often sung this role with the Netherlands Bach Society. He also took this part in the 1997 recording. He is an excellent singer and has a vast experience in German baroque music. His delivery is excellent, and he also stresses some elements in the text. But his interpretation isn't very dramatic; there are many moments where he keeps too much distance. Rhythmically his performance is too strict, and it should have been sung in a much more speech-like manner. The general tempo of the Evengelist's recitatives is pretty slow - which is the decision of the conductor. Peter Harvey is another regular of the Netherlands Bach Society. I personally don't like his voice very much, and I often find him too bland. His interpretation of the part of Jesus is alright, but to me it doesn't have much impact. His slight vibrato doesn't make things better. I also noted a slip of the tongue as he sings "asafthani" rather than "asabthani".

I have appreciated him more in his arias. 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' is beautifully sung; it has exactly the right amount of sweetness. 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein' is also well sung, but here his vibrato is a bit obtrusive when he sings forte. Sebastian Noack lacks the subtlety which 'Gerne will ich mich bequemen' requires. 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder' suits his voice and way of singing much better. The two sopranos are quite good. Amaryllis Dieltiens is perfect in 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken': phrasing, articulation and text expression are very fine. The same goes for the aria 'Aus Liebe' and the preceding recitative. Siri Karoline Thornhill is doing quite well in her aria 'Blute nur', but she could have done more with the closing lines of the B section ("droht den Pfleger zu ermorden, denn es ist zur Schlange worden") whose content is hardly expressed.

The alto Tim Mead has a nice voice, but I find his singing really problematic, in particular because of his frequent vibrato. It is historically inexcusable, and as it is most heavy at unstressed syllables I tend to consider this a technical deficiency. It really spoils most of his arias. The duet 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' also suffers as his voice doesn't blend with Amaryllis Dieltiens'. His text expression leaves something to be desired as well, in particular in 'Buß und Reu'. Matthew White is better in 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen', without being really impressive. Things look better as far as the tenors are concerned. Julian Podger gives a fine account of the aria 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen', with excellent diction and good text expression. Charles Daniels is just as good as I expected him to be - he would have been my first choice for the part of the Evangelist. His performance of 'Geduld!' is very expressive, but the tempo is too slow, and that is even more the case in the preceding recitative, 'Mein Jesus schweigt', which I have never heard that slow. I can't find any justification for it; it sounds very unnatural to me. The minor bass roles are sung by Matthew Baker and Philippe Favette respectively. The are alright, but the roles of Peter and Pilate lack profile.

The choruses are mostly done well, but the chorales are problematic. Sometimes they sound lacklustre, and again now and then the tempi are very slow (for instance 'Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden'). I would have liked more text expression, and I find the rallentandi at the end of every chorale very odd. The use of a boys' choir of nine singers is rather at odds with the performance practice of one voice per part. And I still don't understand why conductors stick to using boys for this part. It creates a contrast Bach did not intend.

The instrumental parts are generally good, with a particular impressive contribution of Mieneke van der Velden at the viola da gamba. In the recitatives the basso continuo is mostly played with harpsichord and organ. I am not sure whether this is right - there seem to be good reasons to use a harpsichord, but why using them together? It has become a habit to include a lute in the basso continuo section, but again I wonder why. Bach didn't ask for it, so why use it?

Let me sum up. The concept of this recording is interesting, but I find the musical translation not entirely convincing. The performances are uneven, and although a number of arias and recitatives are beautifully sung, there are some serious weaknesses, like in particular the performance of the role of the Evangelist and the contributions of Tim Mead. The tempi are also partly unsatisfying. This release is the result of some live performances in the Grote Kerk in Naarden. I wonder if a studio recording would have resulted into a more consistently satisfying result.

The lavish booklet contains many beautiful pictures of paintings from the collection of the Catharijneconvent, a museum for religious art in Utrecht. These are explained in an essay. But as a result the lyrics are separated by pages with paintings, which is rather awkward. The booklet includes a highly interesting essay about the Lutheran ideas regarding "Compassion with Christ". All texts are in Dutch, English and German.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Netherlands Bach Society

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